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Seattle, WA, USA

Posted Thu Oct 29, 2020 10:20 am

Jim Sachs, the legendary ground-breaking digital artist and game designer accepted to be interviewed by AmigaLove. The following is the result of that process as well as some additional information provided during our correspondence.

AL: Questions by Eric K. Hill of AmigaLove
JDS: Answers by James (Jim) D. Sachs (pronounced “Sax”)

AL: Right off the bat, Mr. Sachs, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. You’ve been one of my artistic heroes for decades, and I know I’m not alone in letting you know your art and games had a huge impact on my life. And for that, I want to sincerely thank you up front.

I’d like to actually start quite early in the Jim Sachs timeline. I read that you were in the Air Force. What was your role and rank when you separated from the military?

JDS: I was a Captain, a C-141 Starlifter pilot. I was stationed at Norton AFB in Southern California, but traveled extensively. I was in for 6 years, and was 28 when I got out. The Air Force wanted to make me an Instructor Pilot, but it would have meant moving to Texas, so I got out instead.

Note the name badge on Mr. Sachs' uniform. "When I was about 11, my stepfather had me take on his last name, so for 20 years I was Jim Hicks. I changed it back to Sachs about 40 years ago." Photo Copyright James D. Sachs.

AL: Did you ever receive classical art training before or after you left the military? Did you do any kind of professional artwork prior to becoming one of the leading and most innovative digital artists in the 1980s?

JDS: No. I’ve always done a lot of drawing and painting as a kid, but no real training.

AL: What was the first computer you ever purchased?

JDS: A Commodore 64.

AL: What made you decide you wanted to become a computer programmer and artist for a career?

JDS: At the time, I didn’t think of it as a career, just something interesting to do for a while. Making movies has always been my career goal.

AL: Back in the early to mid 1980s to be a digital artist often meant one needed to learn to program. Did you teach yourself to program? What resources were you able to obtain in order to do this back then?

JDS: I bought books on 6502 machine language, and taught myself.

AL: Your first published work was Saucer Attack for Commodore 64 in 1984, correct? Was this the project you used to teach yourself to program, or had there been earlier experiments?

JDS: After buying the C-64, I spent a few weeks typing in programs from magazines, then realized I could do better creating them from scratch. Saucer Attack was my first effort, then I started on Time Crystal, but abandoned it when the Amiga came out.

AL: At what point did you make the move to Amiga?

JDS: I had been monitoring its progress through magazine reports even before Commodore took it over. When that happened, I flew to Commodore headquarters in Pennsylvania, and got Developer’s status on the Amiga.

AL: What was your professional relationship with Commodore? Were you ever an official employee?

JDS: I was always an independent contractor, though I did several jobs for them.

AL: Were you an employee of Cinemaware, or a contractor?

JDS: I was their Art Director, but still independent. The grueling schedule was not for me, and I left after the one project.

AL: Were you an early adopter of Deluxe Paint or Graphicraft (both programs look quite similar it’s sometimes hard to tell what came first)? What were your preferred art tools in the early days of your career?

JDS: Graphicraft was a very simplistic paint program written by RJ Mical, mostly to allow the Amiga in-house artists to show off what the Amiga could do. It was ported almost verbatim by Aegis, and called Aegis Images. I used both extensively for the first couple of months on the Amiga. Then Dan Silva created Deluxe Paint, which was light-years ahead of anything else, and I immediately switched to that.

AL: Defender of the Crown, for me and others, was when your name really “hit the scene” in a most powerful way. The first time I saw the game was actually on a Commodore 64. And even though that port pales in comparison to the Amiga version, at the time it made my jaw hit the floor (plus the SID music is pretty fantastic). I couldn’t believe what you’d accomplished and, frankly, I think it was a watershed moment in computing and gaming history demonstrating what was possible years ahead of its contemporaries. Can you talk about the process you employed to bring such realistic digital paintings and animations to life from concept to finished piece?

JDS: I put dots on the screen. One at a time at first. Green dots for grass, blue dots for sky, gray dots for castle blocks. Hour after hour. I was happy if I got one square inch of the screen done in a day. The first screen (the Saxon castle in the distance) took about two weeks. After Deluxe Paint came out, I was able to create a screen in 3 or 4 days.
A self-portrait and the aforementioned castle in a different scene as presented on the cover of Amazing Computing magazine, Volume 2 Number 4.

AL: Can you describe the team dynamic on the original Defender of the Crown at Cinemaware? Were you responsible for all of the graphics? Were you provided hardware and software or did you have to use your own personal gear?

JDS: As Art Director, I was responsible for all the graphics, but I didn’t create everything myself. I would go to user groups and look for artists who could rough-in some of the screens, then I’d finish them myself. At one point, I think I had about 10 people working on various screens. All paid out of my meager allotment, of course. Same with software and equipment.

AL: Back in the day, people with your level of talent were few and far between. One other artist sometimes mentioned alongside you is Avril Harrison. Did you ever meet or work with Ms. Harrison? Who were some of the people you watched and respected during the exciting early days of the Amiga?

JDS: I admired Avril’s work, especially the iconic King Tut pic, but I don’t think I ever met her. Also, the Amiga in-house artists, Jack Hager and Sheryl Knowles. I hired Jack to rough-in the Brigands scene in Defender. Another artist, Joel Hagen, did some innovative work for JPL -- a mock-up of an exploration of an alien world.

AL: The games you were directly involved in that I know of include Defender of the Crown (1 and 2), Ports of Call, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Centurion - all praised for their graphical excellence. Were there any others I might have missed?

JDS: I did the graphics for an easily-forgettable game called Arazok’s Tomb. There were also a few individual scenes and opening sequences for various games, such as Ultrabots. Also, proof-of-concept animations for Mattel’s Power Glove.

AL: When you did your series of Porsche illustrations, what was the purpose of those? Did you own a Porsche at the time?

JDS: No, I’ve never owned a Porsche, though I restored a 911 for a friend. The purpose of those screens was simply to stretch the graphics capabilities of the Amiga to the limit and develop a reputation.
Porsche illustrations by Jim Sachs.

AL: Some of the artwork found in your unreleased 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is simply breathtaking. Did you use a drawing tablet of any kind to produce the artwork? How long would a scene like, for example, the shipwreck, take you to complete?

JDS: I always drew with the mouse. Scenes like that would usually take a week to 10 days.
The Nautilus, by Jim Sachs.

Shipwreck, by Jim Sachs.

AL: Something I’ve often wondered is how you transferred your digital paintings to print. Can you talk about the process you employed to create a piece of digital artwork (raster images, in relatively low resolution) to a gorgeous poster or cover of a book? The epic image for Brilliance comes immediately to mind. If that were printed today through normal means, it would be smaller than a vertical postcard and blurry. Back in the day, how did you do it?

JDS: I photographed all of my earlier low-res screens directly from a 1080 monitor with Ektachrome slide film. The CRT raster lines would blur the pixels together nicely. It wasn’t until years later that color printers were able to do justice to computer graphics. The Amiga Lagoon pic that you’re referring to was the first AGA hi-res image I did. It was commissioned by Digital Creations to show off their Brilliance paint program, and they gave me an Amiga 4000 as payment. I still did that one the normal way, with a mouse – just a lot more dots than usual.
Amiga Lagoon, by Jim Sachs.

AL: What was your working relationship with RJ Mical? Did you ever work directly with any of the other founders of the Amiga?

JDS: RJ and I had a somewhat contentious relationship when we were doing the game. He would complain about his 16-hour days, and I said that sounded like a vacation compared to my 20-hour days. We became friends afterward, and have remained so for 30 years. I worked with Carl Sassenrath when I did the splash screen and all the user interfaces for CDTV.

AL: Your work is legendary in its realism and attention to detail. Were you ever drawn to the siren song of 3D modeling and animation in the 1990s as those tools began to rapidly evolve?

JDS: When I was working with Aegis, Allan Hastings wrote Aegis Videoscape 3D, and I played with that a lot. I modeled the Nautilus, with an eye toward doing 20,000 Leagues as a 3D project, but the quality just wasn’t there until Hastings and Stuart Ferguson went to NewTek and created Lightwave.

AL: After your Commodore years, you worked on a wildly popular screen saver called the SereneScreen Aquarium. I actually owned a legit copy for Mac on System 9.2 around the year 2000 or so. Can you talk about how you came about this very cool program, and what your personal role was?

JDS: Well, my role was creating it, start-to-finish. It was a one-man project. I had seen the pathetic fish screensaver that Microsoft was using on Windows, and decided to take the genre away from them. The Microsoft program just dragged 2D bitmaps across the screen, so I knew I could do a lot better with animated 3D models. It’s still the No 1 screensaver, and available at Sales have dwindled, but thanks to Roku, it still provides my income 20 years later.

SereneScreen: Note Mr. Sachs' signature in the lower-left of the aquarium sand.

AL: Something I’ve always wondered: was your beautiful ocean-themed illustration for Brilliance the inspiration to create SereneScreen years later?

JDS: Yes, I planned to use the different sections of that pic to develop a series of SereneScreen programs. Besides the saltwater tank, there was to be a freshwater tank, a terrarium, a butterfly habitat, and an aviary. But I got busy building my castle, and never completed any of the other programs.

AL: The level of realism in the Aquarium was stunning. The fish, to me, looked so incredibly lifelike, as if you composited video footage of real fish swimming in a 3D space. What hardware and software did you use to model and animate the creatures?

JDS: I created all the objects in Lightwave, went to aquarium shops to photograph fish and coral, and programmed the whole thing in C++ and DirectX. The hardware was just a standard PC.

AL: Today in 2020, I’ve seen a lot of your past work represented on the web as pulled straight from original files via emulation. Oftentimes, this work is shown literally without being re-formatted to a 4:3 aspect ratio. Does it bother you to see your art distorted for future generations?

JDS: It bothers me a lot ! Whenever I see one of those wide-stretched images, I always try to contact the owner of the site and urge them to fix the aspect-ratio.

AL: At what point did you migrate from the Amiga? Did you ultimately walk the path of the Mac, PC or Linux (or a combination of some sort)?

JDS: I switched around ’94 after doing Defender 2 for CD32. I just went with the PC, not Mac or Linux. It was obvious the Amiga was done, and I needed a more widespread platform to create the 3D software for the CompuTrainer bicycle training device.

AL: Years ago I read that you had designed an incredible home in Oregon that was fantastical in design and scope. Did you ultimately complete the original design the way you wanted? Are you still in that home today?

JDS: I’ve been working on it about 15 years, and we hope to move in next month.

Jim Sachs' "Castle".

AL: Do you have any regrets about the Commodore days, or projects you wish you’d completed?

JDS: Well, of course the real heartbreaker was 20,000 Leagues. I’ve never completely recovered from Disney turning that one down.

AL: Do you think of yourself more as a programmer, or an artist, or a perfect hybrid between the two?

JDS: I’m an artist first. The programming aspect allows me to instantly know whether an effect will be possible, but art must lead the way.

AL: Where have your interests taken you these days in your retirement?

JDS: Not really retired yet. At 71, I’m still hoping to start a career making movies 😊
[AL: In fact, Mr. Sachs finished a screen play just days before completing this interview.]

AL: Do you still keep in touch with any of your colleagues from the Commodore/Amiga days?

JDS: I worked a lot with Reichart Von Wolfsheild (creator of Firepower, Return Fire, Disney Animation Studio and the Roger Rabbit game). He’s been staying in my castle, riding out the Covid quarantine. I re-connected with quite a few of the old Amiga guys at the 30th reunion, including RJ, Carl Sassenrath, Dale Luck, and Dave Needle.


User avatar
Seattle, WA, USA

Posted Thu Oct 29, 2020 10:48 am


Some have asked about this image, which is titled "Sachs Castle" at the Amiga Graphics Archive.

I, too, asked Mr. Sachs about this image.

That, in fact, is a house he designed and built at Lake Arrowhead, Calif.

Jim Sachs:
Except for the greenhouse on the upper left – I never got around to that.

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Posted Thu Oct 29, 2020 10:50 am

Thank you for this. What a talent.

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Posted Thu Oct 29, 2020 1:56 pm

Excellent interview, thank you. Like all Amiga fans, it's impossible not to be mesmerized by Jim Sachs art. I too would have loved to see 20 000 Leagues, what a missed opportunity. I still play Defender of the Crown 2 regularly, did just two days ago. It was evident right from his Saucer Attack that Jim Sachs was a cut above the rest, a true talent.

Aside from Mr Sachs answers, I was also intrigued with the callout of the Baron himself. A decent fan of Firepower on the Amiga but 'Return Fire" on the 3DO was perhaps my favorite game on that system (along with Star Control II). I remember having a discussion with him on usenet eons ago, something about some of the sound effects in Return Fire done with throwing ice cubes into his pool? LOL I often wondered what became of him and its pretty cool to hear that two genius who worked on my favorite computer of all time have kept in touch.

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Detroit, MI, USA

Posted Thu Oct 29, 2020 2:38 pm

Some of his pictures, at least the Porsche I'm pretty sure, show up as clip art in ProWrite I believe.

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Posted Fri Oct 30, 2020 3:17 am

Fascinating interview. Thanks so much for sharing. Jim Sachs is an amazing talent. Thanks so much for all your amazing work Jim. :D

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Posted Fri Oct 30, 2020 4:29 pm

Thank you both!
A perfect interviews with the perfect Amiga artist!

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Posted Sun Nov 01, 2020 10:33 am

Thanks for that. Love reading these bits of personal history.

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Posted Sun Nov 01, 2020 4:40 pm

Great interview. Some really interesting bits of information. We want more.

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Zippy Zapp

Posted Tue Nov 03, 2020 7:35 am

Awesome interview, thanks for the time it took. What an awesome artist and seems like a totally cool dude.

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